‘Kolai’ movie review: An unflattering murder-mystery that prioritises style over substance

Despite all the quirky cinematic techniques on show, Balaji Kumar’s film, starring Vijay Antony and Ritika Singh, only comes across as a staple whodunit with no attempt to subvert anything

July 21, 2023 03:52 pm | Updated 04:06 pm IST

A still from ‘Kolai’

A still from ‘Kolai’ | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

With Kolai being a locked-room murder mystery based on a real-life unsolved murder (the 1923 murder of Dot King), and the presence of a star who is often credited for getting the sensibilities of the masses right, the promise was an intriguing film worth investing your time in. It’s a simple story that is told through the structure of a classic whodunit; after a singer-model Leila (Meenakshii Chaudhury) is found mysteriously murdered inside her house, two detectives (Vijay Antony and Ritika) follow the breadcrumbs to map out all possible suspects. Leila’s singer-boyfriend Sathish (Siddhartha Shankar) is the first one, but he has a strong alibi. Babloo (Kishore Kumar, the comedic relief in the film), Leila’s nagging ex-manager; Arjun (Arjun Chidambaram), a top fashion photographer accused of physical assault; and a perverted modelling head (Murli Sharma) are the other main suspects with questionable alibis and convincing motives.

Kolai (Tamil)
Director: Balaji K Kumar
Cast: Vijay Antony, Ritika Singh, Meenakshi Chaudhary, Murli Sharma, Siddhartha Shankar, and others
Runtime: 127 minutes
Storyline: Two detectives investigate the mysterious murder of a popular singer-model

Firstly, director Balaji K Kumar doesn’t hide from how quickly he wants to get into the story. Even before you get accustomed to his distinct storytelling style, the expository dialogues kill half the excitement. In the very first shot of police constable Sandhya Mohanraj (Ritika), we are told that she is a top student of a detective named Vinayak. Vinayak (Vijay) is introduced as the clever and shrewd Sherlock who hesitates to get back into the field, and when we meet his wife, she immediately lets us know the status of their relationship and about their child who is critical in the hospital after a road accident. When the detectives meet the inspector of the police station Mansoor Ali Khan (John Vijay), he’s the typical perverted and immoral sloth from the word go.

Several timelines are bridged using dialogues as transitions, and though this seems like a cool trick, it’s unfortunate that it is only the technique that makes any impression; the dialogues keep us at an arm’s length from the events on screen, just like the narrative style and the world its set in.

The visual transitions and use of surreal metaphors also follow a similar pattern. It’s promising to see the thought that has gone behind each of these meticulously-sketched and programmed images, but you can’t help but wonder why they only underline what has already been told. The mise en scène captures our attention more, primarily because Balaji evidently strives hard to take us into a world that never quite manages to pull us in completely. The film is set in a fictional place, called... Madras, which is imbued with the spirit of Chennai.; it also partly seems like a manifestation of a futuristic Chennai that Balaji foresees.

But nothing really sticks to the mind, making both the world and the people it inhabits seem plasticky and soulless. That even the performances and dialogue delivery don’t help in selling the sentiments of the characters is disappointing. Though it’s commendable that Vijay Antony is exploring such genres and settings, the film offers the actor in him nothing interesting, eventually turning out to be a staple whodunit with no attempt to subvert anything.

All that said, Balaji Kumar is definitely an interesting filmmaker to watch out for. Not every day do you get to see Tamil films with such transitions and techniques; from a reverse shot reconstructing a place and taking it back in time, to one character in the frame being frozen in time to allow the others to interact.

What emerges as a clear winner is the music though. Girishh Gopalakrishnan steals the show, and the main theme (a remixed ‘Partha Nyabagam Illaiyo’ from the 1964 Puthiya Paravai) haunts you for hours after the movie.

Kolai is currently running in theatres

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